According to the historians Tacitus (c. 56-117) and Suetonius (c. 69-122), Emperor Claudius completed a series of canals and tunnels in the year 52 that connected Fucine Lake, in central Italy, to the Liris River. Before the construction was complete, workers frustratingly had to drill through a mountainside on one stretch of the journey. When the project was deemed ready to be officially opened, Emperor Claudius decided to celebrate the event with one of ancient Rome’s favorite spectacles—gladiatorial games. Yet, he did not want a mere skirmish in an arena. No, he wanted the kind of extravaganza worthy of a Roman emperor. With this in mind, Claudius followed the example of some of his famed predecessors and devised a plan to showcase a magnificent sea battle, in which he would pit thousands of ship-bound gladiators against each other.
The historian, Tacitus, claimed that 19,000 gladiators and criminals were gathered on Fucine Lake to fulfill Emperor Claudius’ dream. These fighters, some dressed as Sicilians and others as Rhodesians, were crowded onto warships to reenact a naval battle from Greek history. To ensure that no one fled, Claudius posted his own soldiers on rafts, making a ring around the fluid battle scene. In addition to this, the emperor also allegedly set up numerous siege engines, such as catapults, which were used to fling heavy projectiles at the sailing gladiators. Roman citizens poured in from all over Italy, eager to see the show. Tacitus wrote that countless spectators jostled over the best spots on the hills and beaches by the lake.
Under the eyes of the emperor and the masses, the ring of soldiers pressured the fighters into action. Although it was a staged battle, the violence was not an act—Claudius let the blood flow. The mock-Sicilian and mock-Rhodesian fleets engaged in battle on Fucine Lake, all the time having to worry about random shots from the emperor’s catapults. After the battle had stained the lake red with spilled blood, Claudius concluded the event, sparing the fighters who had managed to stay alive. With the gruesome performance over, the emperor officially opened up the waterway.
Interestingly, according to Tacitus’ account, the story did not end there. Apparently, the waterway was not dug adequately deep. Therefore, the outlet built into the lake was dammed and the laborers went back to work on the canals. When the project was finally complete, Emperor Claudius allegedly decided to showcase a second gladiatorial battle on Fucine Lake. This time, the emperor had gladiators fight an infantry battle on a huge stage of sturdy pontoons. As had previously occurred, another massive crowd supposedly came out to see the show, this time setting up banquets for themselves on the lake’s shoreline. Unfortunately, Tacitus claimed that when the outlet was reopened, water from the lake began to surge toward the recently deepened canal with unexpected strength. Waves crashed against the shoreline, startling the spectators, as the forceful currents were pulled toward the waterway. Tacitus did not mention any deaths from this event, but he did note a prevalent atmosphere of shock and terror.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (The naumachia (Naval battle between Romans). Oil on canvas, 125.6 x 200.5 cm. This work was presented at the National Society of Fine Arts in Paris, 1894. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.